British newspaper The Guardian confirmed some aspects of the highly controversial report released last week by Amnesty International claiming that the tactics of Ukraine’s forces were endangering civilians and could be considered war crimes.
The report has released a storm of controversy and widespread derision from Ukraine’s supporters on social media as well as condemnation both by the Ukrainian authorities and many senior commentators in the West.
“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. “Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”
Callamard struck back on social media denouncing the “social media mob” and calling her detractors “trolls”. Many have called for her resignation. Her position was made worse after the head of Ukraine’s Amnesty International office, Oksana Pokalchuk, said the team in Kyiv had been cut out of the loop when they objected to the report’s contents and were not allowed to contribute.
“Our team’s arguments about the inadmissibility and incompleteness of such material were not taken into account,” Pokalchuk said on Facebook, announcing her resignation. “The representatives of the Ukrainian office did everything they could to prevent this material from being published.”
According to reports, the Amnesty International representative that conducted the investigation usually concentrates on Sudan and speaks no Russian or Ukrainian, adding to the criticism of the report.
However, a report by The Guardian’s Luke Harding from Kyiv, a veteran reporter on Eastern Europe, confirmed some aspects of the report, including the use of schools and hospitals to house Ukrainian troops in the field as well as sleeping in residential flats. The report concluded that this meant in some instances Russian forces would respond to an attack by targeting residential areas, thus putting civilians at risk and damaging civilian infrastructure. It also criticised the Ukrainian army for not evacuating civilians who could be caught up in the crossfire.
Amnesty researchers investigated Russian strikes in Ukraine’s Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolaiv regions between April and July. They found 19 villages and towns from where the Ukrainian forces had either launched strikes or were basing themselves. In these three regions, Amnesty found five locations where hospitals were “de facto” used as bases and out of 29 schools visited by Amnesty, they concluded 22 had been used as bases.
The report noted that most of the civilian infrastructure repurposed by the Ukrainian army was located kilometres from the front lines and argued that alternative locations were available, The Guardian reports.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar argued at the briefing that Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems needed to be based in towns to protect civilian infrastructure and if Ukrainian forces were only based outside urban settlements, “Russian armed forces would simply sweep in unopposed”.
Schools were closed on the first day of the invasion and none of the buildings have been functioning as schools since the war started. While the rules of war under the Geneva Convention say that the use of objects such as schools should be “avoided”, there is no blanket ban on their use during active military operations.
The Guardian reporter Harding and his colleague Isobel Koshiw confirmed school use and said they have seen at least seven instances in three regions of Ukraine where schools and nurseries in residential areas were used as bases by the Ukrainian army. “Five of the schools and nurseries the Guardian visited had been bombed. In each instance, several surrounding buildings were damaged in the attack,” The Guardian reported. “In one instance, in the Donetsk region, at least three people died when the wave of the blast that destroyed a base hit a neighbouring residential building.”
One Ukrainian commander told The Guardian that schools provide the necessary facilities: showers, multiple toilets, large kitchens, dining areas, basements and rooms needed to house his soldiers.
The Ukrainian incidents reported by Amnesty stand in stark contrast to reports of Russian forces not only using civilian objects like schools to house troops, but of Russian looting, systematic rape and murder of civilians in towns and villages they occupy.
Moreover, Russian forces have deliberately targeted civilian objects clearly marked as refuges for non-combatants. A theatre in Mariupol housing hundreds of women and children and clearly marked “Children” in large letters visible from the air was deliberately bombed by Russia. Russia has also set up artillery within the grounds of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP) to prevent it from being attacked by Ukrainian defenders.
Most of the critics of the report condemned it not by denying the claims, but by pointing out that Russia was the aggressor and clearly guilty of atrocities such as the massacre at Bucha, whereas Ukrainians were merely defending their homeland.
More considered opinions pointed out that Amnesty’s report creates a moral equivalency between the actions of Russian troops and those of Ukraine and so exonerates Russian atrocities to some extent.
The report’s conclusion was widely taken up by the Russian media and caused a media storm. Russian state media has constantly reported on Ukraine’s shelling of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, where residential areas have been hit and civilian casualties have been numerous, an aspect of the war that gets less attention in the western media, partly because western journalists have no access to the Russian-controlled territories.
Maliar accused Amnesty of “distorting the real picture” and of failing to understand the situation on the ground, The Guardian reported.
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defence, said that “any attempt to question the right of Ukrainians to resist genocide, to protect their families and homes … is a perversion”, as cited by the Guardian.
The Amnesty reports acknowledged that the rules of war don’t definitely ban the use of schools by soldiers but emphasised “militaries have an obligation to avoid using schools that are near houses or apartment buildings full of civilians … unless there is a compelling military need”.
Amnesty International previous fell foul of public opinion after it rescinded its decision to grant “prisoner of conscience” status to jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny in February last year, due to his previous racist remarks and “hate speech” that he has refused to recant when challenged after rising to prominence.
The decision caused a widespread public outcry at the time, as Navalny had just returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been recuperating from an attempted assassination attempt using the Novichok nerve agent. He was promptly arrested on his arrival in Russia and has been sentenced to multiple terms in prison. Amnesty eventually backed down and restored the designation in May.